By Lee Tae-hoon
The ruling Saenuri Party withdrew its selection of two candidates for the April 11 National Assembly elections Wednesday amid growing criticism of their alleged “distortion of modern Korean history.”
Chung Hong-won, chairman of the governing party’s Selection Committee, said that it decided to cancel the selection of Park Sang-il and Lee Young-jo for Seoul’s central electoral districts of Gangnam A and B, respectively.
“What the committee had failed to notice has been made a controversy by media reports,” he said. The two have come under mounting criticism for their seemingly inappropriate comments on historic events.
Park Sang-il, vice president of the Venture Business Association, provoked strong protests among civic groups for describing independent fighters as a “small-sized terrorist group” in a book that he published last August.
Lee Young-jo, a former head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (KTRC), was under mounting pressure to abandon his candidacy for his extreme far-right ideology.
He insisted on labeling the Gwangju Democratization Movement on May 18, 1980 as the “Gwangju Rebellion” and the Jeju April 3 Uprising of 1948 as the “Jeju Revolt.”
Many experts, including Donald Baker, professor at the University of British Columbia, however pointed out that it was improper for Lee to describe the two historic civic movements as acts of illegitimate violence.
Baker, who witnessed the Gwangju massacre as a Peace Corps volunteer in the southeastern city, says that the incident in May, 1980 was a rebellion by a few Army generals, not by the people in Gwangju.
“On May 18 a few people in Gwangju protested peacefully against the declaration of nation-wide martial law,” he said.
“But then, when those peaceful protests were met with deadly violence at the hands of the military, they began fighting back, primarily in self-defense. Therefore the label ‘rebellion’ is inappropriate.”
He also argues that the Jeju April 3 Uprising, which resulted in the deaths of some 30,000 to 60,000 people in factional fighting on the southern island was a civil war, not a revolt.
“The fighting in Jeju back then was fighting over two different visions of what Korea should look like, over whether it should be one country or two,” Baker said. “The fight between the North and the South is usually called a civil war, not a revolt by southerners against northerners.”
Lee, however, refused to apologize for his disputed remarks, saying he was an ideal person capable of consolidating the conservative vote for the Saenuri Party.
Former translators and an employee of the KTRC sued him for abusing his authority by suspending the distribution of the English version of the “Historical Background of Korea’s Past Settlement,” written by his predecessor Ahn Byung-ook, perceived as a liberal.
They claim that Lee banned the book when he was head of the truth commission as it reveals that the Korean Army, police and right-wing organizations were responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians, an uncomfortable truth that conservative governments had kept secret.
A group of reform-minded lawmakers and members of the party’s interim leadership committee had strongly demanded the party drop Lee.
“Lee is undermining the party’s support base,” Lee Jun-seok, a member of the leadership committee, said. “All members of the interim leadership committee have reached a consensus that he should withdraw his candidacy.”
He said the former KTRC chief’s extreme-right political views are not in line with Saenuri Party policy.